Photographic Memories: Reflections of Port MacDonnell

By Ania Legra, MMA student

My interest in travel and thirst to become familiar with the foreign have played a key role in my decision to pursue a career in maritime archaeology.  They both go hand in hand with my passion for field-work. They influenced my decision to move to Australia, and they’re what motivated me to register for ARCH8156 at the beginning of semester one (before I knew where the course would be held).  I believe that whether you travel halfway across the world, or just a short distance away from home base, field-work has the power to transport you to another place in time.

Whether you’re participating as a student, a volunteer, a supervisor, whether you’re paying to learn, getting paid, or doing it for free, I believe that each and every trip that takes you out into the field brings with it new and unique lessons.  I’d venture to say that even the seasoned, wise and sagely archaeologist will learn a thing or two every time.

I’ve spent my fair share of time in the field; enough to be familiar with the unpredictable nature of events, and the mantra “plan for the worst, hope for the best” (expect to fall somewhere in-between). I was ready to go, but I had no idea what we would be up against.  The meteorological conditions bestowed upon us during our week at Port MacDonnell were extremely foreign to me.  I grew up in a place where the climate is hot and humid practically all year round; and winter could very well be the friendliest season that we have.  Polar opposite to Port MacDonnell, wintertime in Miami, Florida, is the high season. Families from the Northern states or “snowbirds”  – as these seasonal residents are referred to locally – fly south for the winter during the holidays. Attracted by calm seas, clear skies, and a MINIMUM average of 15°C, tourism peaks as travelers from around the world pass through.  Not to mention that right now, where I’m from, we’d be in the middle of summer – which ironically, is also the rainy season and most likely our un-friendliest time of the year.

Port MacDonnell:

Advanced Practicum in Maritime Archaeology

In this, my latest adventure in maritime archaeology, I learned many things and experienced many firsts.  It was my first time enrolled in a field work unit as a Flinders University International Student, and it was the first time I was being evaluated for a grade. Other notable firsts include:

  • 1st lesson in D-GPS
  • 1st inland shipwreck
  • 1st probe survey
  • 1st non-recreational use of a jetty
  • 1st sandbagging experience
  • 1st non-recreational use of a pail, shovel, and rake at the beach
  • 1st time to feel what a positive probe strike is like
  • 1st time working under the freezing-cold wind AND rain
  • 1st time to record a jetty anything under a torrential downpour
  • 1st time to work through a hail shower
  • 1st time to be a mere 3000 km from Antarctica
  • 1st time I was part of a field crew where North Americans were the minority

The list goes on… and I have to say that despite the initial shock and horror (and sarcastic undertones) it will likely go down as one of the best “field-trips” that I have been a part of.  I had the opportunity to work with a great group of people and to spend time in a very special port town.

Off with a bang (on the 4th of July)

I started out on the infrastructure team or iTeam as we called ourselves.  Our mission was to document the maritime infrastructure of historic Port MacDonnell.  In other words, to uncover the series of installations that brought the sea and land together, building the complex organization of trade channels that fed the local economy.  Analogous to a circulatory system, the jetty can be seen as the heart of the network, and ground zero for iTeam.

Much like the residents of Port MacDonnell (both past and present) who depended on the jetty for their livelihood – for the next week our lives would be ruled by the tides, the wind, and the rain.

Our first day of the practicum gave me a pretty good understanding of what we would be dealing with in the days to come.  Just as we started to fall into a nice rhythm out on the jetty the rain started to pour down, or rather, cut across hard.  The first thing that I noticed when we walked into the nearby café (to shelter ourselves from the elements) was a collection of black and white pictures hanging on the walls – historic photographs of the jetty.  More accurately, they were photographs of events and other activities that took place on or around the jetty, and they showed evidence of structural changes that occurred over time.  They depicted elements of the jetty that were no longer identifiable at first glance.

The rain cleared as we finished our coffee break, I mean, finished conducting our research at the café.  As we peered out the windows, towards our work site, we saw that the sea had risen up over the end of the jetty.  The tide was coming in fast and the waves were crashing over the deck planking with awe inspiring force.

Our first day out on the site ended sooner than expected but our day out in the field had just begun.  We spent the remainder of the time on solid ground and decided it would be best to divide and conquer.  Our objective, inspired by the photographs on the wall, was to seek out information pertaining to the jetty. Half of the team headed to the library the other half hit the streets.

The value of photographic evidence

With a background in criminology and history I’ve learned to look at photographs as evidence, and I appreciate their value in an investigation – of any kind.  Collecting scientific data at an archaeological site is very much like collecting evidence at the scene of a crime.  In both instances, the investigators are attempting to draw conclusions from material remains, of human activity, that were left behind.

Photographs have the power to transcend written or oral histories in that they do not rely on fallible human recollections but rather show events for what they truly were…. Or do they?  Memory fades.  Dates are confused. Typographical or transcriptional errors get overlooked.  Mistakes are widely circulated.  Photographic images portray reflections of moments frozen in time.

In attempting to retrace the changes that were made to the jetty two things became remarkably clear:

Which one...

#1) Photographs need be interpreted not only as archival documentation but also should be treated as artefacts in and of themselves.  If their context or provenience is lost, or if the artefact has been labeled incorrectly or not at all, it becomes increasingly difficult to place them accordingly as time passes:

  • This revelation gave me a new appreciation for the importance of properly labeling the pictures one’s taken in the field as soon as humanly possible.

... came first?

#2) It is important to understand that these images could have been previously altered or misinterpreted:

  • This is something I already knew from my background in criminology, however, I forgot to transfer it over when analyzing photography from an archaeological perspective.

Photographs are (mis)labeled, re-touched, published in various contexts, taken out of context… but, in contrast to written text, when these layers are peeled away you still know that what you’re looking at actually took place.  Whatever it is that you see in the image was not imagined; it is not a work of fiction that can be mistaken for fact.

As I tried to make sense of these pictures I was quickly reminded not to take them at face value.  I was trying to use the photographs to correct some of the confusion – in the chronology of significant events – passed down to us from the residents of Port MacDonnell.  There was just one problem.  The pictures reflected the same discrepancies.  As I myself began to reflect on the issue it dawned on me – maybe the pictures themselves account for some of the confusion.

Looking through the lens

In an attempt to make better sense of the historic photographs I returned to the streets of Port MacDonnell along with Miss Maddy Mac.  Armed with a digital camera and digital copies of the historic photos (on my laptop) we set out to (re)make some historic snapshots of our own. It was not the best equipment to be carrying around while under constant threat of rainfall but we made do just fine.

Commercial Trade - Once there were Lighters

View from the end of the Jetty

Charles and Meylin Street

Old Custom's House

Not so picture perfect

The task was more challenging than we had anticipated.  So many things had changed.

A wise man once told me that the sea tells a different story every day.  He was talking about the changing nature of the sea and the ever changing coastline.  He is a photographer; the changing seas are his inspiration.

From a maritime archaeologist’s perspective I feel the same concept can be applied to our work.  As students of Maritime archaeology we should approach the evidence that we collect with the same forethought.  The sea does tell a different story every day.  Whether it’s a shipwreck that is eroding out of the shoreline, constantly changing from one instant to the next – or a jetty that’s been sitting there seemly unchanged for over 100 years; when you look closer or dig deeper you will find that every day’s worth of investigations paints a picture.  Changing tides provide different views of what you saw, or thought you saw, the day before.

The wise man that I refer to above spent the last 30 years of his life as Harbour Master for Port MacDonnell.  I met him and his wife on our first day out on the streets and we were lucky enough to have a chat with them about his pictures – the ones we found hanging on the walls of the café.

Not so foreign relations

Aside from the various technical skills I learned while out in the field, I’d have to say that the most valuable lesson that I took with me from my work at Port MacDonnell was in how to find the familiar in the unfamiliar.  I did it by building relationships between people, places, and things; hoping to learn more about the maritime infrastructure and the shipwreck on the coastline.  Relating the present to the past and the past to the present – the photographs led the way.

Miami - 1980s

Port Mac - 2011

*The historical images found above were provided courtesy of the MT Gambier Library Photographic Collection – They are intended to be used for educational purposes only.

4 Responses to Photographic Memories: Reflections of Port MacDonnell

  1. Great job Ania! Very interesting stuff!!! =0)

  2. A great project! Photos provide a real link to the past, but are subject to interpretation, both intellectual and emotional. Pictures are more than just a record of change, they are time capsules–much like a shipwreck, one might say.

    • That’s a very good point Rachel. In essence pictures that stand alone – without clear and accurate descriptions – can be seen as abstract images whose meanings are derived through cultural constructs, much like symbols.

      The shipwreck analogy is interesting. Although viewed as time-capsules, would you agree that the value of a photograph as time-capsule, like a shipwreck, begins to depreciate with human disturbance? In other words if an artefact is taken out of context would the time-capsule effect still apply?

  3. Thank you, it has been a very interesting and rewarding project.